In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Dear Father, brothers and sisters: S Praznecom! Happy Feast!
Today we have two readings, the first from St John’s Gospel is the one appointed for the Sunday before the Exaltation of the Cross. The second reading is the resurrectional one given for this 16th Sunday after Pentecost and is taken again from the Gospel of St Matthew. In the first reading, St John alludes to the serpent being lifted up by Moses as a foreshadowing of the Cross of our Lord lifted up at His voluntary Passion. The reading ends with these beautiful words –
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.
By contrast, our second Gospel for this Sunday strikes a different and perhaps harsher note, that tells of the searching judgement of God with the parable of the talents. But, rather like that beautiful ikon of Christ from Mount Sinai, which on one side of the face has a tender and mild portrayal of Christ, and on the other has a stricter, sterner-looking face – these two facets are not in schizoid conflict, but are reconciled and united in the one person of Christ – Who is both the Good Shepherd & the Judge of all Creation. God’s love is not without purpose or expectation. It is a love which is not indulgent, but one which is mature, searching and has real expectations of us. God loves us and wants us to be the very best we can be. Likewise, God doesn’t just zap us with grace, He expects us to struggle for Him, to labour for Him and will reward us according to our works. As is our custom, let us turn to this Parable of the Talents, with St Gregory the Great, the Apostle of the English as our guide.
For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods.
And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey.
Once again, we are presented with a further parable of the kingdom of heaven, of the true nature of spiritual reality under the Kingship of Christ. And like the other parables we have heard read these past few weeks it also features a Man of substance and authority providing his servants with something, leaving them for a fixed period of time and then eventually returning back to see what they have done. As St Gregory identifies –
Who is the man who sets out for foreign parts but our Redeemer, who departed to heaven in the body he had taken on? Earth is the proper place for his body; it is transported to foreign parts, so to speak, when he establishes it in heaven.
In today’s parable, the main symbolism is one of mercantile trading and investment. The Man gives his servants different amounts of money – 1 talent, 2 talents and 5 talents – and then returns to see what they have done with that initial investment. The first thing to say is that this parable isn’t Christ’s endorsement of free market capitalism, of the charging of financial interest, of fiscal speculation and all manner of wheeling and dealing. This is a parable with a spiritual meaning and intent. But, like the financial traders, we are being asked to be cunning and tactical in the spiritual life. This reminds me of a famous passage from St Seraphim of Sarov –
Acquire the grace of the Holy Spirit also by practicing all the other virtues for Christ’s sake. Trade spiritually with them; trade with those which give you the greatest profit. Accumulate capital from the superabundance of God’s grace, deposit it in God’s eternal bank which will bring you immaterial interest, not four or six per cent, but one hundred per cent for one spiritual ruble, and even infinitely more than that. For example, if prayer and watching gives you more of God’s grace, watch and pray; if fasting gives you much of the spirit of God, fast; if almsgiving gives you more, give alms. Weigh every virtue done for Christ’s sake in this manner.
Now I will tell you about myself, poor Seraphim. I come of a merchant family in Kursk. So when I was not yet in the monastery we used to trade with the goods which brought us the greatest profit. Act like that, my son. And just as in business the main point is not merely to trade, but to get as much profit as possible, so in the business of the Christian life the main point is not merely to pray or to do some other good deed. If we understand the commandments of Christ and of the Apostles aright, our business as Christians consists not in increasing the number of our good deeds which are only the means of furthering the purpose of our Christian life, but in deriving from them the utmost profit, that is in acquiring the most abundant gifts of the Holy Spirit.
St Seraphim used his mercantile background and training, not in order to become rich in worldly terms but in order to become tactical and prudent in the spiritual life, and I think we can learn much from his words and this approach. Now that we are neither scandalized nor misled by this mercantile analogy, let us then return back to the parable:
Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them other five talents.
And likewise he that had received two, he also gained other two.
But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord’s money.
So, we see that there is a division amongst the Man’s servants: with two of the servants doubling the initial investment and one of the servants not trading at all, but rather hiding his money in the ground, so as not to lose it. What is the deeper meaning of placing the Talent in the ground? As St Gregory glosses,
Hiding a talent in the earth means employing one’s abilities in earthly affairs, failing to seek spiritual profit, never raising one’s heart from earthly thoughts.
In a sense it means a refusal to run the spiritual race in the first place, and to forfeit and give up and give in to just earthly, worldly reality – a world without grace and without God. We can also see in this a certain laziness and cowardice, a self-justificatory defeatism.
Many people in the Church resemble that servant,’ says St Gregory, ‘They are afraid to attempt a better way of life, but not resting in idleness … they feel no fear at remaining in their wickedness’.
We can also see this mentality in the false humility of people who excuse themselves from going to church, or not praying, or not reading scripture, or not fasting, because they are not holy. As if some people are just zapped and immediately become holy, and immediately and easily do all manner of spiritual works. No. The spiritual life, takes time, struggle and tactical thinking. How can I gain maximum spiritual advantage from the spiritual gifts and advantages I have, whilst making minimum losses from my particular personal passions and weaknesses. It is here also, in marriage that a husband and wife should support and encourage each other as well as cover and protect each other’s spiritual blindspots and vices.
After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them.
Then when the Master comes back, just as there was a division between the servants in their investment strategy so also there is a division amongst the servants in the response of the Master. To the servants who had doubled His investment, our Lord offers exactly the same reward –
Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.
To those who make use of their talents – the gifts and opportunities that God grants them – and gains spiritual profit from them, they are rewarded by God in the Kingdom of Heaven.
However, to the servant that went and hid the Talent in the ground –
His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed:
Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should
have received mine own with usury.
Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents.
For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.
And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
At first glance this sounds harsh. Yet, in this topsy-turvy Kingdom of God where things are not as they initially seem, we can also see in this the searching, challenging and chastening love of God for us, which purifies with fire. In his homily, St Gregory also replies to the challenge that some may make that they have not been given any talents whatsoever.
No one can truly say, ‘I have not received a talent, and there is no reason I should be compelled to give an account’. Even the very little that any poor person has received will be counted as his talent.
And these talents, don’t necessary have to be gifts and talents – iconography, languages, a beautiful singing voice – these can also be opportunities and advantages that arise through our birth and throughout the course of our lives. Have we looked, have we understood and thanked God for these opportunities to grow in the spiritual life.
My dear father, brothers and sisters: today’s parable calls us to reflection and to action. As St Paul says in his epistle to the Romans –
And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.
It may have escaped your notice, but that small narrow road, with its steep descent that some of us drive down from the B1062 onto Low Road, before we turn into the entrance to our church is called very significantly for today’s Gospel reading – Tallents Loke. Perhaps the next time that you pass this way to church, reflect on today’s parable and consider how much spiritual profit, how much spiritual interest you have made from God’ investment in you. How are you using your talents, your gifts, abilities for the good not just of yourself, your livelihood or quality of life, but that of the church, your brothers and sisters as well as your neighbours? As St Gregory concludes his homily: ‘Let us then bear in mind the things we have received, and be careful in trading with them. Let no earthly care deter us from spiritual work, lest we provoke the talent’s master to anger by hiding our talent in the earth.’